At the denouement of one of the most successful seasons in Ireland’s rugby history, the two most successful provinces in European rugby are fighting to provide a fairytale season ending by potentially playing each other in the Champions Cup final.
This weekend Munster and Leinster take on Racing 92 and Scarlets respectively in the competition’s semi-finals. Leinster have the advantage of playing at home at a packed Aviva Stadium, while Munster must travel to the Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux.
Both games are eminently winnable by the Irish sides, but the memory of missing out at the same stage last season will be fresh in the players’ minds.
Leinster will want to banish the memories of their 27-22 defeat in Clermont where they had every opportunity to win but somehow failed to make it to the final. While Munster were heavily beaten by the champions Saracens, 26-10, at the Aviva.
Neither side was happy with their performance and will want to take this opportunity to redeem themselves.
On the face of it, Leinster should have the easier task. A home fixture in front of a heavily partisan capacity crowd against a team they are very familiar with. However, there are also bad memories of the semi-final defeat against Scarlets in the Pro12 play-offs last season.
The Welsh club seem to time their best rugby for when it really matters. The bulk of their team represented Wales throughout this season, as Warren Gatland opted for the unity of one club, supplemented by a handful of non-Scarlets.
There are very few weaknesses in this Scarlets side and on their day they are capable of beating any of the teams in the Champions Cup. They will know Leinster’s strengths having played them so frequently in recent times.
In coach Wayne Pivac they have the future Wales coach in-waiting, and a very astute operator who will have a game plan to test any perceived weaknesses in Leinster’s armoury.
Pivac has been compared to Joe Schmidt for his attention to detail. Both men come from the same region of New Zealand.
A very weakened Leinster were surprisingly beaten by Benetton at the weekend, 17-15, at the RDS. This was the home side’s first defeat at the hands of an Italian team.
It was a very disjointed performance by a scratch side, but fortunately their closest rivals in the B Conference, Scarlets, also fielded a scratch side and were heavily beaten by Edinburgh.
With one game to go Leinster are five points clear and almost certain to win the Conference, thus giving them a bye to the semi-final of the play-offs.
Sean O’Brien had a quiet 40 minutes before being replaced at half-time. He was nursing his injured shoulder during the game and it seems unlikely that he will take any part this weekend.
Scrumhalf and key player Luke McGrath is also in a race to be fit for this weekend’s match. The prognosis is good that he will have recovered in time, but he hasn’t played for a few weeks. The influence McGrath makes is so significant that he is likely to play even if he is not 100 percent fit.
Schmidt will not only be keeping an eye on the Leinster players performances this weekend, he will also take a keen interest in Munster-bound Tadhg Beirne, who has been such an outstanding performer for Scarlets for the past two years.
With the three Test match trip to Australia coming up in June, it would be a surprise if the versatile Beirne is not included in the squad.
Munster managed an excellent win away to Cheetahs. Conor Murray came on as a substitute just before half-time, at which time Cheetahs were leading by 14 points. Within 20 seconds he sniped over for a try and after a commanding performance his coup de grace was a 57-metre penalty to snatch the game 19-17. Munster will be relying heavily on their scrumhalf when they take on Racing this weekend.
They are bound to bring hoards of their fanatical supporters to Bordeaux and ironically it was before the Racing game last season that their talisman coach Anthony Foley passed away.
I’m sure the significance of that will not be lost on the men in red. Racing were superb in overcoming Clermont in the quarter-finals and they are playing some outstanding rugby at the moment.
However, it is difficult to discount the extra factor that Munster bring to their performances in the European competition. They produce a superhuman effort on these types of occasions. They will certainly need to be at their belligerent best to take care of this talented French side.
They have a lengthy injury list but no longer than they had for their quarter-final victory over Toulon. They were second best for lengthy periods of that game but somehow managed to produce a phoenix-like recovery when all seemed lost.
Andrew Conway’s solo try will be remembered for years to come at Thomond Park. They somehow seem to find an extra gear even in the most extreme circumstances, and they certainly won’t go quietly.
There is no doubt that Munster and Leinster have what it takes to set up an All-Ireland Champions Cup final in Bilbao next month. What an incredible end to this outstanding season for Irish rugby that would be.
European Champions Cup Semi-Finals
Leinster Rugby v Scarlets
Saturday 21st April, 3:30pm
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Racing 92 v Munster Rugby
Sunday 22nd April, 3:15pm
Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux